Seaweed: Health Benefits for the Body and Planet
For thousands of years, seaweed has been used in many cultures, especially those in coastal regions, not only as a food source, but for its health benefits. Many of these areas such as Japan are considered “blue zones” where people are known to live longer and with fewer health problems. In fact, Japan has the highest number of octogenarians, people who live to be over the age of 100, in the world. Other well known “blue zones” are Sardinia, Italy, Loma Linda, California, and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.(1)
Although seaweed was part of the diet of American settlers and even used in agriculture as a fertilizer for land-based plants, it did not remain popular and only began to again gain a modicum of popularity in the United States and other Western countries in the late 1960’s as researchers recognized and began to study the health benefits. Brown seaweed, which is remarkable for a unique molecule called fucoidan, has been of particular interest. Since 1968, over 1300 independent research studies have been published at The National Library of Medicine, and there are approximately 6000 references in medical texts with ongoing research especially in the fields of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stem cell research, and in the treatment of obesity. (2,3,8,9)
What are the health benefits of seaweed?
There are three types of seaweed-green, red, and brown and thousands of varieties within each type, but only a few, like brown seaweed, contain fucoidan.
Brown seaweed is a vitamin and mineral rich organic superfood. The mineral macronutrients include sodium, magnesium, potassium, chlorine, sulfur, and phosphorus. Brown seaweed is one of the richest plant sources of calcium, one of the crucial nutrients in anti-aging. The micronutrients in brown seaweed are iron, zinc, copper, selenium, molybdenum, manganese, boron, nickel and cobalt. Seaweed is one of the best sources of organic iodine, an essential mineral which is important in thyroid health as well as having a protective effect against all cancers, especially breast and prostate cancer. Iodine protects the body against the harmful effects of environmental radiation, radiation used in medical treatment or testing and in the event of a nuclear disaster.(8,9,10)
Seaweed has a high content of Vitamins A, C, and B12 and contains over 16 percent of the RDA of vitamin K and 9 percent of the RDA of folate.
Although seaweed is relatively low in protein it is high in essential fatty acids and fiber and is an excellent food to combat obesity.
According to Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon, “Seaweed has high fiber content, making up 32% to 50% of dry matter. The soluble fiber accounts for 51-56% of total fibers in green (ulvans) and red algae (agars, carrageenans and xylans) and for 67-87% in brown algae (laminaria, fucus, and others). Soluble fibers are generally associated with having cholesterol-lowering and hypoglycemic effects.”
Fucoxanthin, a carotenoid found in brown seaweed is purported to encourage fat loss, especially dangerous abdominal fat, which is considered a precursor to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.(6)
Brown seaweed, containing fucoidan has known immune building properties as wells as anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-coagulation, and anti-carcinogenic effects. Brown seaweed also has the ability to bind to heavy metals and toxins and remove them safely from the body. (2,3,7,8,9)
Other applications for seaweed
The benefits of seaweed are not just as a food source or in its potential health benefits.
Seaweed is an ecologically sound commodity because of its sustainability and may be the solution to the potential global food shortage due in part to changes in climate such as flooding or drought, loss of pollinators worldwide requiring hand pollination in many countries such as China, and rising food prices globally due to increasing costs of transportation. Seaweed is one of the fastest growing plants in the world with a rate of 9-12 feet in a mere three months and does not require fertilization because it is naturally fertilized with organic material found in the oceans. As an added benefit seaweed reduces carbon emissions which are a major factor in climate change and global warming.(5)
About 50 percent of seaweed's weight is oil, which scientists are using to develop biofuels and biodiesel which can be used for cars, trucks, and airplanes. Scientists at the University of Indiana recently figured out how to turn seaweed into biodiesel four times faster than other biofuels, and researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have discovered a way to use alginate, a polysaccharide found in the cell walls of brown seaweed to increase the storage power of lithium-ion batteries by a factor of ten.(5)
Seaweed is a viable and more eco-friendly solution to the fossil fuel shortage than existing biofuels such as soybeans and corn, and unlike these land-based biofuel crops, seaweed farming or aquaculture does not require fertilizers, forest clearing, irrigation, or heavy use of fuel-burning machinery -- and, as a result, according to the World Bank, has a negative carbon footprint. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), seaweed biofuel can yield up to 30 times more energy per acre than land crops. (5)
While the technology is still new, The U.S. Navy has already developed the Riverine Combat ship and Seahawk helicopters powered by seaweed-based bio-diesel. The Pentagon views seaweed as a key component in their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.(5)
Bun Lai, world-renowned sustainable seafood chef, believes that “If done right, this new generation of green aquaculture is poised to become the most sustainable form of farming on the planet.”(5)
As we all know, we not only need healthy food to supply the growing world population and which combats the ever-growing crisis of disease processes linked to unhealthy food, but sources of energy that protects rather than harms our climate and Earth. Seaweed and seaweed farming may be the key pieces of the puzzle for building a sustainable healthy future not only for ourselves but for generations to come.
1. Dietary Patterns and Longevity Expanding the Blue Zones
2. Brown Seaweed at NCBI
3. NCBI Fucoidan
4. The Nutritional and Medicinal Value of Seaweeds Used in Chinese Medicine
5. The Coming Green Wave: Ocean Farming to Fight Climate Change
6. Fucoxanthin, A Healthy Weight Loss Supplement
7. Top Ten Natural Ways to Remove Heavy Metals
8. Fucoidan and Cancer: A Multifunctional Molecule with Anti-Tumor Potential
9. Therapies from Fucoidan; Multifunctional Marine Polymers
10. Seaweed: Miracle Vegetable From the Sea